Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Occupation - Populating the Continent

Nearly everything required by hunter-gathers was provided for by the coastal environments of northern Australia - fresh water, shelter, fire and food - the available food being in a variety of forms, fruits, nuts, tubers, fish, shellfish, birds and their eggs, reptiles and marsupials, which made for a secure foundation. The numbers of marsupials, birds and reptiles were very high, which would have made it easy for the first settlers to live off the land in the vicinity of their first settlements until they worked out what could and could not be eaten in the vegetation away from the landing site, the composition of the vegetation becoming more different with distance from the coast and rivers. At the landing site they would also have to be wary of possible predators, but as they moved further inland they would have had to become familiar with the large megafauna predators that inhabited any new environments they encountered. Once they had become familiar with the new predators they needed to find a defence against them, and the occasional cyclone, fire or flood they needed to learn how to deal with, life in general would probably have been relative safe and free in their new homeland.

To colonise the new continent they needed, as would any animal colonising a new environment, access for the men to breeding females. It is shown by demographic simulations that in order to avoid extinction or in-breeding at least 2 groups of about 100 individuals each would be needed for the exchange of women to allow both groups to achieve a stable demographic state. It is indicated by genetic analysis that the people colonising Australia did so in a number of landings that took place close to simultaneously, in small groups that totalled about 1,000 individuals. As the entire continent was populated in what some suggest may have been a relatively short time, then it is obvious that there were enough breeding women, though in some cases in very small groups there may have been a degree of incest if women from other groups were not available.

An open social and environmental horizon confronted these first settlers to which they needed to adapt, breed and consolidate, and then they could expand into the rest of the continent. The author1 suggests the first settlement and colonisation of the continent might have been quite fast, though he suggests northern Australia was such a fertile environment at the time of the first settlement that there might not have been much need for nomadism. He also suggests that the establishment of a relatively small area may have been encouraged by the country being foreign and fertile which may have been a significant disincentive to extreme nomadism.

On the other hand there were few constraints on territorial expansion once a social group was secure, as the population increased and the existing resources became less abundant. It is suggested to be possible that an ancient population that had steadily grown and expanded proportionately, that was never far from water and always within reach of its own geographic traditions, constantly sought new country to live more easily in. A sinuous colonisation process that eventually appears to have, as the author1 puts it, a surprising agility.

It is therefore possible to imagine a founding population growing, their country becoming increasingly larger along the coast, up rivers and across the savannah and on into escarpments and hills that were well watered. When the founding population first arrived the shores and hinterland where they settled, which is now under water, was a landmass that was greater in area than the present day Northern Territory and twice the size of New South Wales. It was a large area and would appear to have been a large area for the settlers and their descendants to colonise, though it may have taken less time than is at first believed possible. Assuming a population of 1,000 settlers, and that population was comprised of family groups each of about 20 people who had a territorial configuration similar to that of coastal Arnhem Land at the present, and a population growth of 1-2.5 %/year, the entire coastal plain, that is now submerged, could have been populated in 400-900 years.

If this is correct it would have been possible that a founding population arriving in Australia 70,000-50,000 BP could have settled the entire coastal plain, now submerged, in a period that was too short to be detected by even the best of the modern dating techniques, being in that sense instantaneous. But as people are social beings with a strong sense of place, to the extent that people are dependent on their society and their society is dependent on the country it is attached to, then these people are partially geographically contained. The necessity for territorial expansion is opposed to the need for a unified society, and such a tension is broken only under particular environmental conditions, such as drought, or changed conditions such as overpopulation that leads to decreased environmental opportunity. Therefore it is difficult to predict population growth as the ties of social adhesion bind it, and the environmental necessity stabilised, at some point, by the relationship between them in the context of indeterminate time elements, diversity of environments, the variability of the climate, and the evolution of the culture. The dynamic is active, the balance is variable and there are unpredictable demographic consequences. It is obvious that people did colonise the entire continent, but it is less obvious what the pattern and rate of colonisation was. Therefore it is not known if colonisation was as rapid as is suggested by demographic modelling, or as slow as it is supposed to be by intuition, being tentative at the start, of incremental form and in time comprehensive, always being contextualised by human capacity, constraints of the environment and the changing climate over the millennia of occupation.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin.
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  14/11/2013
Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading